Howard Johnson’s playing career spanned 18 years (1979-1995, plus two games in 2011,) and included such milestones as having three 30-30 (stolen bases and homeruns) seasons (1987, 1989, 1991), and getting two-thirds of the Triple Crown (38 homeruns and 117 RBI) in 1991, when he was also the first switch hitter to lead the National League in homers. He has two World Series rings; one with Detroit in 1984 and one with the Mets in 1986.
After he retired from playing he went on to scout, manage and coach. This year HoJo, 52, is the Rainiers’ hitting coach. It is his year first with the Mariners’ system. He recently talked to Tacoma Weekly’s baseball correspondent Karen Westeen about his life in baseball.
KW: What position did you play?
HJ: Mostly third, some shortstop, a little first, and some outfield, but primarily the infield.
KW: You knew Tacoma manager John Stearns before he came here in May. Where did you first meet him?
HJ: Stearns left the Mets before I got there, but I had met him many times before he got here. When I coached for the Mets, he was coaching and scouting with them.
KW: What was it like when he got here?
HJ: It was fun to have him here. I hated to lose Daren Brown but things happen in the game.
KW: You were named to two All-Star teams. Did you play?
HJ: Yes I played in both. I started in 1989 as a replacement for Mike Schmidt, who retired before the game. I was a reserve in 1991.
KW: Your 30-30 seasons and hitting for two-thirds of the Triple Crown are great credentials for being a hitting coach.
HJ: Being a good hitter does not mean you will be a good coach. You have to get away from what you did as a player and try to learn the game from a coaching standpoint and look at what each player needs. I’ve coached for several years and I’ve been trying to learn the craft and be a better coach.
KW: You’ve probably got some little piece of information in your brain that deals with most any situation.
HJ: I’ve coached long enough now that I’ve seen enough players with different styles and I know what guys are thinking before they even think it. I kind of sense what’s going on between their ears and that helps me develop a plan of attack.
KW: What went into your decision to become a hitting coach?
HJ: Love of the game, and I guess I have a knack for discernment and being able to take things apart. I try to listen and get better. I have a desire to always get better.
KW: How long were you out of baseball before you decided to go into coaching?
HJ: I took about half a year off when I finished playing, then went into scouting with the Mets. I did that on the West Coast for about three years (1997-2001). That gave me an introduction to the other side of the game, but then I decided I wanted to be back on the field. I talked to the Mets about being a coach and started in 2001 with High-A in Brooklyn. They won the league championship that year. I managed that team the next year. Then I went into being a hitting coach. My first team was Single-A St. Lucie of the Florida State League (2003).
KW: Do you use different tools to assess the players, like video as well as hands-on and personal experience?
HJ: Yes. Video’s good. You have to know how to read it and decipher it. Primarily I use my eyes. I can see what’s happening in an at-bat, so if I can communicate verbally then I’m good, and if I can back it up with video or just show somebody something then I’ll go that route.
KW: I know coaches get out to the park early and stay late. When would you work with the individual players?
HJ: We have our batting-cage time before batting practice. Usually the guys come down there to get loose, warm up a little bit and I might have a few things at that time that I’m trying to hammer home, based on the night before, good or bad. (I might) reinforce a positive or broach a different way of doing things, and then sometimes we have early BP on the field so I’ll have guys out hitting early, and that’s even more one-on-one in the cage.
KW: Is there anything that’s stadium-specific to the way they hit?
HJ: We don’t want to tailor our approach to the stadium. We always try to take a good fundamental route to hitting and not change that. There are a lot of balls here that get caught that would go out in other parks.
KW: I suppose you might change the way players bat from one at-bat to another in the same game, especially if a different pitcher comes in.
HJ: I think at this level and the next level up it’s less about mechanics and more about the thought process that different pitchers have. Part of my job is to try to inform the hitter as to how he’s going to be pitched to and how to approach the at-bat.
KW: You’ve had several major leaguers here on rehab. Is there any difference in the way you work with a rehabbing major leaguer as opposed to the way you work with the younger players on their way up and the everyday players?
HJ: The rehab guys I don’t do a lot of tinkering around with mechanically, because they’re here to get healthy. I saw them in spring training and if I see something that I think would help them if they’re really struggling I’ll make suggestions. A guy like Mike Morse, I don’t have to say a word because he’s swinging the bat good and just trying to get healthy. I might make a few positive comments here and there. If Franklin Gutierrez is struggling a little bit I can sense that, and I talk to him and maybe offer a few more details to get him ready to go back up.
KW: What brought you to the Mariners’ organization?
HJ: The first contact was by text, and then I got a phone call about possibly coming here. The Mariners hit everything I was looking for. I am far from home, but at this point in my career I can sacrifice some of that to be in the right spot.
KW: Where is home now?
HJ: My wife and I recently moved to Nashville to be near our daughter and her family. (The Johnsons also have another daughter and a son).
KW: Has any of your family been able to come out here yet?
HJ: Not yet. They’ve come to Las Vegas a couple of times and my wife’s going to be here the next home stand.
KW: The media guide says you played two games with Rockland in 2011. What was that all about?
HJ: That’s Rockland, N.Y., an independent team. My son was on the team and he was a second baseman. I wasn’t coaching at the time and the GM said, “Why don’t you ask your dad if he’d play a couple of games with us.” That was fun. I was 50.
KW: Did you have any role models when you were growing up?
HJ: Mike Schmidt was probably my top guy. He wore number 20, and I wore that number in high school and that’s why I still wear it.
KW: Were there any players you’ve coached that stand out from working with them?
HJ: I worked with a lot of guys with the Mets that were pretty good ball players. David Wright comes to mind. Also Angel Pagan and Jose Reyes.
KW: You’ve done a lot of things in your career – three 30-30 seasons, two-thirds of the Triple Crown, two World Series championships among others. What’s been the highlight of all this?
HJ: Probably being on the world championship teams because they are so hard to come by.